Review: ‘Spirit Dance’

Featuring: Robert Mirabal, Chief Hawk Pope, Peter Buffett, Joanne Shenandoah.

Featuring: Robert Mirabal, Chief Hawk Pope, Peter Buffett, Joanne Shenandoah.

Dancers: Ron Tooivetsee Anquoe, Ted Banfalvi, Jay Barrett, Christina Danforth , Connie Danforth, Keiko Davis, Angelo Fraboni, Michael Gregory Gong, Lee G. Goodman Jr., Jason Lonefeather King, Nancy Lemenger, Kelly Logan, Marla Mahkimetas, Mayumi Miguel, Susan Misner, Judine Richard, Claudia Skenadore, Curt Summers, Samuel Triam, Rocker Verastique, Yakoskanehkat Webster, Lori Elizabeth Werner.

Musicians: Chad Hamill, Reynaldo Lujan, Doug Lunn, Peter Maunu, Paul Gmeinder , Ed Willett, Anthony Stogner, Michael Masters, Kurt Wortman.

Iroquois Nations Singers: Mike Peltier, Artley Skenandore, Paul Gutierrez, Raymond Ackley, Jason Johnson, Raymond Christjohn, Donovan Killspotted.

With: Green Bay Girls Choir with members of the OneidaChoir Girls.

Legit presenters from across the country trekked to remote Green Bay, Wis., to preview the latest attempt to spin ethnic music and dance into high-concept, contemporary road fodder with the coin-grabbing potential of “Riverdance.” Still in embryonic form and currently lacking sufficient narrative clarity for mainstream audiences, “Spirit Dance” was overly brief, understaged, poorly designed and full of long, dull stretches of repetitive instrumental music.

But during the two brief full-ensemble sections when the Wisconsin theater was suddenly and simultaneously filled with pounding rock rhythms, Wayne Cilento’s dynamic choreography and spectacular Native American costumes, one caught brief glimpses of the exciting commercial potential of “Spirit Dance.” To achieve that potential, it will take a lot of work and the re-ordering of a creative hierarchy that is wrongly placing the music — not the dance — at the center of the show.

There’s no apparent shortage of development money or insider clout here. The William Morris Agency has already booked the untried show into Los Angeles and other major markets in 1999, with Broadway in the long-range sights. Aussie producer Peter Holmes a Court has proved his mettle with the hugely profitable “Tap Dogs” (which also runs little more than an hour). PBS had its cameras in Green Bay filming “Spirit Dance” for upcoming national broadcast — the very video vehicle that propelled “Riverdance” to national prominence. And composer Peter Buffett (“Dances With Wolves”) just happens to be the son of legendary investor Warren Buffett, who’s among the richest men in the world. (Although he’s not an acknowledged investor, the elder Buffett came to Green Bay and was pressing flesh at the post-opening cocktail party.)

Like “Riverdance,” this affair is a contemporary treatment of traditional ethnic cultural forms, mixing a heavily amplified hybrid of rock and native musical riffs with choreography that fuses “Tommy”-style sensual gyrations with traditional native movement. The creative base is Buffet’s world-music CD of the same name, and the elliptical score often sounds more like a 1980s concept album than the dramatic basis for a strong piece of musical theater.

But the composer has managed to give Native American music a mainstream flavor and youthful rock vitality without sacrificing cultural authenticity — the Oneida Nation supports the show, and the enthused Native American performers clearly see this as a chance to generate new audiences and an increased excitement for their artistic heritage.

Therein lies the main challenge for the “Spirit Dance” developers. While “Riverdance” could simply arrange its international tours around the historical patterns of Irish immigration, Native American cultural forms (sad to say) are far less familiar to most Americans in major legit markets. If audiences are to embrace this show with similar passion, it needs a much stronger narrative through-line and far more explanation of exactly what we are seeing.

It’s time to hire a good writer.

The pseudo-narrative here involves an attractive and shirtless fellow who shows up in the opening dance piece in an urban jungle, ultimately shedding his business suit for the wild call of Native American culture. This nameless character drops out of the show before long, and we lose interest. Most of the vocals from Chief Hawk Pope are similarly oblique, and we can barely see Native American recording star Joanne Shenandoah, whose voice is one of this show’s strongest assets.

Too much of the stage is takenup with dull platforming for musicians, leaving Cilento’s dancers insufficient room to move. Projections are frequently blocked, the girls’ choir comes and goes with tedious predictability, and the whole dull look needs a serious design overhaul if it’s to pack the hip visual wallop its producers clearly intend. The static Buffett is unnecessarily bathed in light for much of the time — attention that should be going to the dancers and other performers.

The strengths of “Spirit Dance” include Cilento’s often riveting choreography; the thrilling pageantry of the Native American dancers in splendid costumes; and the occasional but nonetheless powerful moments when Buffett’s music serves a dramatic purpose and works in unity with the dance. If it’s to make it to Broadway, “Spirit Dance” needs to remember that it’s a piece of theater and not a Mannheim Steamroller concert.

Spirit Dance



GREEN BAY, Wis. A Back Row Prods./Peter Holmes a Court presentation of a musical revue in one act conceived by Peter Buffett, with music by Buffett. Directed and


Choreographed by Wayne Cilento. Music collaborator, Chief Hawk Pope; sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Virginia Webster; lighting, Alan Adelman; production supervisor, Clayton Phillips. Opened, reviewed Aug. 9, 1998. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.
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